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Raindrops shimmered in the van’s headlights, hanging like glittery diamonds suspended in time. A child’s delight.
Lucy blinked and broke the unwelcome connection with the past. She hadn’t thought of that night in years. Outside, the iridescent raindrops splattered against the windshield, coalesced into rivulets, and slid down the glass. The unwanted memories went with them.
A quick glance in the rearview mirror showed absolute blackness. She’d seen no other traffic for a long while. Not surprising. Intel reported the area abandoned by the county during a downturn in the economy a few years back. Only warehouses remained in this forsaken part of Atlanta now, derelict and far gone in Mother Nature’s reclamation project.
The rain fell in a fine mist now, enough to keep the wipers on intermittent as she strained to see the almost invisible center strip. She rubbed her left shoulder, aware of the dull ache there. Wet weather seemed to exacerbate the old injury. Cold, too. The white-knuckled grip she’d had on the steering wheel for the past hour probably didn’t help either. There’d be no more martial arts competitions for her. And no more boss after tomorrow, either.
A tiny, self-satisfied smile formed. The video game world offered more than anything the government would pay. They had their chance.
Despite having aced all the physical requirements for rookie agents, despite her marksmanship records, and martial arts successes, the Bureau of International Intelligence had stuck her in a windowless computer lab to analyze and exploit network weaknesses all over the globe. A gerbil wheel for the technology rat. They’d denied her requests to move into the
field again and again, and instead turned her into the very thing
she’d run from. A hacker.
Too bad she got her one and only field assignment now. At the end. Thanks to Ed.
Strains of Bad Boy, Bad Boy filled the vehicle. Ed had scowled something fierce when he learned she’d assigned the theme song from Cops for his ringtone.
She grabbed the cell phone from the cup holder. “Hi, Ed.”
Ed Whitaker, thirty-year veteran of the Bureau of International Intelligence, North American Corridor, and the special agent in charge assigned to the Cypher case. Ed would never be accused of making polite conversation. Just the facts, ma’am.
“Visibility’s bad. Wait. I see the abandoned gas station. Less than a half mile now.”
She rolled her eyes at the authoritative tone.
“Delacroix will meet you at the surveillance point to help hook up the cables before he takes up over-watch position. Get the files, give the signal, and get out. Nothing more. Del will tail you back to headquarters. Got it?”
Of course she got it. He knew about her near-perfect recall, not to mention he’d harped on the same thing during the last dozen briefings for tonight’s mission.
A nervous flutter in her belly had her taking a deep breath. The only difference with this assignment was she’d traded her lab in the Bureau’s Atlanta office for one inside the armored van. And they’d issued her a gun. Not that she’d have a chance to use it.
“Lucy. You copy?” By the numbers, that was Ed.
“Yeah, I copy.”
“Good. We go silent now. Shoulder mic for emergency only.”
A dial-tone hummed in her ear.
“Bye to you, too,” she grumbled and powered down the phone. Right on time, the rain stopped. For once, the weather cooperated with Ed’s meticulous planning.
Outside, night relinquished its hold on the world. Monday dawned gray and dreary. She turned the big van dubbed Bubba into the abandoned warehouse complex. Could the setup be more perfect? The absence of civilians translated to no collateral damage. Down and dirty. Take ’em in or take ’em out.
After three long years of chasing the wily Cypher and always coming up a little too late and a whole lot short, Ed finally got smart. He’d brought Lucy in but kept her involvement quiet. Only he knew the details of what she would attempt on this sting. Ed wanted to nab Cypher, but he wanted the drug dealer’s files more.
Goose bumps pebbled Lucy’s skin. Cypher conducted million-dollar deals through cyberspace. If Ed was right, the clever drug dealer used a program long considered a pipedream. He could track computer signals to their precise geographic coordinates, which would explain how he always stayed one step ahead of the authorities.
Quicksilver employed the same premise, but with a twist. There’d been no time to run more than a few laboratory simulations, though. Would her program work the way it was supposed to in a live environment?
The van’s heater blasted the spring chill from the air but did nada to dispel her nerves. Quicksilver had to work. Ed needed closure on this case. And she wanted to leave the Bureau with a bang.
Lucy drove through the industrial complex, following the route scouted earlier by the recon team. She found the designated dead-end street positioned well away from the area of action, and backed the customized van along the road until the pavement ended. Bubba might not look like much on the outside with the missing hubcaps and assorted dents, scrapes, and rust spots, but he had moxie where it counted.
The battered white Econoline E-350 stood seventy-inches high and one hundred inches long, and boasted a 6.8-liter V10 engine with 305 horsepower and a body lined with lightweight ballistic material that could deter armor-piercing slugs. Only a rocket launcher at point-blank range could penetrate Bubba’s hide or the polycarbonate armored windows.
Cypher’s arrival was pinpointed for eleven thirty that morning. If they didn’t get him this time, they’d burned a reliable informant for nothing.
In Ed’s typical over-prep fashion, he’d sent in Todd Delacroix the night before, the team’s communications tech. Del, as the other members of the team called him, planted cameras and laid landlines that would connect with Bubba’s generator-powered control center. The rest of the team had arrived onsite earlier, around 4:00 a.m. Ed wanted everyone in place, even if it meant a long wait. He didn’t take chances.
As the creaks and pings of Bubba’s cooling engine faded, Lucy reached for the hundredth time to the small holster under her arm. With practiced hands, she lifted the gun free, pulled the slide back, and checked the ammo load.
The shoulder mic crackled. “Lucy?”
Ed’s whispered growl made every one of her muscles tense. Breaking radio silence meant bad things. She tapped the speaker button to un-mute and answered. “Yeah?”
“You in position?”
“Just cut the engine.”
“Change of plans. Target is imminent. Six minutes out.
Del is on his way to you. He’ll need your help.” Ed disconnected.
Her heart went into overdrive. Cypher was hours too early. She yanked the keys from the ignition, opened the driver’s door, and dropped to the ground. The automatic lock engaged behind her.
Off to the right, a flashlight beam bobbed through the woods. Del, fresh from the training academy in Alexandria, Virginia, was a technology rat like her, but with outside privileges. Discrimination? Oh, yeah, but a battle she hadn’t won. Besides, she couldn’t do half the stuff he did.
If Cypher could drill down to the exact coordinates of an active IP address as Ed suspected, then Del’s handiwork would provide eyes for the team—without a traceable computer signal to give them away. A few more days and she might have perfected a mask for electronic camera feeds. Instead, they used the hardwired method. It was messy and archaic, but effective, given Cypher’s focus on technology.
Lucy met Del at the rear of the van.
“Connect the lines while I cover them.” He handed off a handful of quarter-inch cables. “The wire colors match the connectors, red to red, blue to blue.”
He didn’t wait for her answer. This might be Del’s first field op, but he performed like a veteran. But did he understand that bad guys don’t play by the rules?
Lucy clenched a small flashlight between her teeth and set to work, pairing the color-coded wires and twisting them around their contact points.
Back inside the van, she opened the panel to the cargo area and stepped through to the technical surveillance observation post—TSOP, Ed called it. After the panel swooshed closed, low-wattage lights flickered on.
A one-way glass window ran along one side of the cargo area. A desk-high counter filled the length on the other side. Two thirty-two-inch LED monitors were mounted there, each with a laptop docked in front.
Lucy powered up both computers. When the cursor appeared in the middle of the left screen, she spoke. “Watch Dog, sync to camera connections. Display feeds one through six.”
The screen on the left filled with a series of picture-in-picture video streams showing views of the tree-lined approach from the main road, the front entrance to the warehouse, a rear entry view, two perspectives of the rear loading docks, and one of the empty truck lots. Thank you, Del.
On the second monitor, the crux of the operation, two words blinked in the middle of the screen.
A new word popped up, keyed to her specific voice patterns.
“Quicksilver, open command sequence.”
Today’s deal could send millions of dollars to an untraceable bank account on Grand Cayman. Worse, the transaction could flood the eastern seaboard with a supply of illicit drugs.
A question appeared on the screen. Activate?
On her directive, Quicksilver would latch onto Cypher’s computer signal without being detected. Then, camouflaged by the source computer’s own attributes, her Trojan program would slide down the captured signal right into the heart of Cypher’s operating system. From there, she could copy all readable and executable files, download them to a cache on her computer, and transmit them to the Bureau’s field office in Atlanta.
The cursor blinked in a steady rhythm.
Movement on the multi-picture surveillance monitor drew
her attention. Four cars rolled from one screen to another until
they stopped at the loading dock. Two men per car. Eight total. Six of them brandished what looked like assault weapons. The seventh man, the driver, held a handgun while the last man
carried a briefcase.
“Watch Dog, zoom in twenty-five percent on feed five. Zoom in forty percent.”
The man with the briefcase wore a baseball cap that obscured his features but increased magnification blurred the pixilation too much. “Watch Dog, camera feed five zoom out to normal.”
The man opened the briefcase, removed a laptop, and set it on the hood of the SUV. He connected a small tripod with an umbrella-like attachment, and then his fingers began moving over the keyboard.
Oh, yeah, this had to be their target. “Quicksilver, identify computer signals within five-hundred yard radius.”
Five seconds passed before three IP addresses appeared on the right monitor. Two belonged to her computers, plus one unknown.
“Quicksilver, acquire signal for one-nine-one point one-five-six point one point one-two.”
A circular arrow began spinning on the screen. The moment of truth had arrived. If Cypher discovered the tampering, the op would turn ugly fast. Lucy held her breath and watched the men on the screen. They appeared alert and cautious, constantly scanning the area, but nothing more.
Fifteen seconds passed.
At thirty seconds, words replaced the circle. Signal acquired.
She let out an audible breath when there was no reaction from Cypher or his men. “Quicksilver, launch Hermes.” Hopefully, the Greek patron god of thieves would favor them today.
A full minute passed. A bead of sweat trickled down her temple. Lucy wiped it away with her shirtsleeve. Back in the
lab, the connection had been instantaneous.
Another thirty seconds went by before a series of file names and paths spilled onto the screen, rolling up and off the page too fast to follow.
“Quicksilver, open BII portal. Transfer cached files.”
A pop-up appeared, showing the transfer connection between the two machines. Relief flooded through her.
She looked at the surveillance screen again and choked off the short-lived relief. Cypher’s men swarmed around like someone had kicked their hornets’ nest. What happened? She’d taken such care to mask Quicksilver’s signal.
Realization came with a groan. She’d spent so much time masking Quicksilver’s entry, she hadn’t thought once about the return transmission from Cypher’s computer. Stupid. A novice’s mistake. Of course, he would know if his own machine communicated out.
A bar at the bottom of the screen slowly filled with green. Four percent. Not nearly enough.
On the surveillance monitor, laptop guy pointed toward the woods, right at her. He said something to his men and six of them took off at a dead run.
Lucy thumbed her mic. “Uh, Ed?”
“You got the files already?”
“Transfer is in process, but I think Cypher’s men are on to us. Six of them are heading my way.”
On the monitor, Cypher’s frenzied fingers stabbed at the keyboard. He stepped back, hands gripping his head. And then he grabbed the laptop and hurled it to the ground. One doozy of a control-alt-delete.
On Lucy’s screen, the files continued to scroll. Amazing.
He’d trashed his laptop, but the impact didn’t break the connection.
“Stay put, Lucy. We’re moving in.”
Cypher gathered the broken laptop pieces, stuffed them
back in the briefcase, snatched up the rest of the equipment,
and climbed inside the SUV. The driver sped off, spewing gravel in their wake.
“Cypher is on the move. He and the driver took off in a dark blue Escalade. If they go too far, I’ll lose the signal.”
“Roger. Alpha Team move to intercept. Bravo and Charlie stay with the plan. Lucy, it’s time for you to go.”
“The upload isn’t complete.” The bar had climbed to twenty-three percent. Still not enough. “I need more time.”
One of the surveillance pictures showed Cypher’s car stopped in front of the warehouse. Instead of turning right toward the exit, the driver went left. Toward her.
“Ed, he’s coming this way.” She wasn’t supposed to be involved in the action.
The SUV disappeared off the monitor. Less than a minute passed before a vehicle screeched to a halt and blocked Bubba’s exit. The driver leapt out, a lethal-looking machine pistol in hand, and sprinted out of sight. Laptop guy—he had to be Cypher—got out also, using his door as a shield, holding a handgun.
A moment later a hail of bullets struck Bubba’s passenger door.
Lucy screamed. Her heart pounded. “Ed, they’re shooting.”
“Easy, Lucy. You’re safe in the van. Just stay put.”
The six thugs who’d run off emerged from the woods. Two of them half-dragged, half-carried a captive between them.
Their prisoner struggled—until a third man clubbed him in
the back of his head. He collapsed only to be yanked upright.
“Nooooo.” Bile burned her throat. This couldn’t be happening.
“What?” Ed demanded.
She could hardly choke the words out. “They’ve got … Del.”
Another dozen men converged on the scene, some with drawn handguns while others wielded weapons right out of a Tom Clancy movie. Cypher had brought his own SWAT team.
Her mouth dried up.
“Hold it together, Lucy.”
“Ed, I count eighteen … nineteen … no, make that twenty men. Repeat, two-zero men, all of them heavily armed.”
One of Cypher’s thugs crept to the van and pounded on the window where she knelt.
She jumped. They couldn’t see in, but knew she was there.
He motioned for her to come out.
She shook her head. Not happening. “They want me to come out.”
“Negative. Do not leave the van. That is an order.”
Outside, one of Del’s captors stretched his arm out to one side.
A shriek shattered the silence. Del collapsed to the ground, doubled over.
Lucy jerked back from the window, collided with the counter, and fell. On hands and knees, she crawled to the trashcan and retched.
“Talk to me, Lucy,” Ed demanded.
She wiped her mouth with a sleeve, praying she wouldn’t puke again. Tears streamed down her face. “T-they shot him,” she managed to say. “Cypher put a g-gun to Del’s hand and p-pulled the trigger.” Her stomach lurched.
The same thug banged on the window again.
She crawled to the window and looked out. “Oh, God, please, no.” She slapped her hand against the window.
They’d lifted Del to his feet. Cypher stood by his side.
The baseball cap still hid most of the drug dealer’s features, but
she had no difficulty reading his lips. He pressed the gun against Del’s thigh and looked at the van. He held up his index finger and mouthed, “One.”
A vise had settled around her chest.
He raised a second finger. “Two.”
“Nooooo!” Her fists hammered against the glass.
“Three minutes, Lucy. Hold on.”
Del didn’t have three minutes. He didn’t have three seconds. She glanced at the computer. Fifty-two percent.
Outside, Cypher added a third finger and gave her a Boy Scout salute. “Three.”
“No.” She wept.
Del jerked and screamed again before collapsing on the ground. Anguished cries filled her ears.
Lucy sank to her knees, face buried in her hands, sobbing.
“Lucy,” Ed shouted.
“Oh, God, Ed, he shot Del in the leg. He’s killing him!”
“Listen to me, girl. You can’t help him.”
Another slap on the glass.
She couldn’t turn away. She owed Del that much.
Del’s captors held him upright again, though he slumped in their arms, head hanging limp against his chest. Blood dripped from his mangled hand. More blood soaked his pants. Pooled on the ground.
Cypher jabbed the weapon in Del’s belly, under the flak vest.
Checkmate. If she left Bubba they both might die, but if she stayed put—
No. She had to try. A quick glance at the master computer.
She set her pistol on the counter. The weapon would be useless against so many. Opening the front panel, she
screamed, “Wait, I’m coming.”
The killers trained their guns on her as she clambered into the front of the van.
“Open the door.”
“Lucy, do not leave the van.” Ed’s ferocity came through the mic loud and clear. “Acknowledge.”
Her heart pounded like an insane woodpecker. “He’ll kill Del.”
“One.” Cypher jammed the gun harder into Del’s torso, making him groan.
“Lucy, you will stay put. That’s an order.”
“I’ll stall them. Please hurry.” Fishing the van keys from her pocket, she dropped them on the floor. “Don’t shoot. I’m coming.”
“Don’t do it, Lucy,” Ed shouted.
Before she could change her mind, Lucy unlocked and opened the door. Her feet hit the ground, and she slammed the door behind her. The automatic lock clicked.
One man rushed forward, shoved Lucy out of the way, and yanked on the van’s door, cursing when it didn’t open. He fired his weapon at Bubba, but the bullets ricocheted off the armored skin.
Lucy went down hard. White-hot pain streaked through her shoulder—the all-too-familiar agony of a shoulder separation.
Strong hands grabbed Lucy and flipped her onto her back. Pain became agony and cascaded through her.
“Well, well, who do we have here?”
Cypher. It had to be.
He straddled her stomach and brushed a strand of hair
from her face. “Little Lucy Kiddron, the brat genius.”
His voice was familiar, but the agony in her arm demanded all of her attention.
He poked her injured shoulder. “Are you still trying to play with the big boys?”
She couldn’t hold back a scream.
Knuckles brushed her cheek then, his touch gentle. “Look at me, Lucy. Open your eyes.”
She whimpered, not wanting to put a face to the nightmare.
“Gotta go, Boss,” someone shouted. “Now.”
The man astride her belly laughed. He jabbed her shoulder again. “Come on, look at me.”
“Aaagh!” Somehow she opened her eyes.
She looked up into eyes the color of midnight. Beautiful eyes framed by long lashes. Jensen Argault. The college genius from her past. He’d presented his hypothesis for tracking computer signatures. A flawed theory she’d debunked, embarrassing him in the process.
Jensen was Cypher.
“You stole my code, didn’t you? I should put a bullet in you for that alone.” He smiled. “I’ll leave you a little present instead.” A wicked-looking knife blade snicked open. “And a promise.”
Lucy’s heart pummeled against her ribs. She couldn’t breathe, couldn’t move.
“Run, Lucy.” Jensen sliced open the front of her shirt. “Hide.” He dragged the flat of the blade across her throat. “I like the hunt. And I’ll kill anyone who gets in my way.”
“Please. Please don’t.”
His smile would put angels to shame. “Begging is nice. Remember that when I come for you.” The tip of the blade bit into the soft skin of her chest.
Buy IMPERFECT TRUST at Amazon for 80% off. Two days only!
Buy IMPERFECT TRUST at Amazon for 80% off. Two days only!